Middlebury town officials sharpen budget knives

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials are proposing to use a combination of surplus money, revenue adjustments and spending reductions to trim the proposed fiscal year 2016 municipal budget by $158,742, an amount that would allow the selectboard to achieve its goal of limiting the impact on residents to a 4-cent increase on the local property tax rate.
The selectboard studied the proposed budget adjustments on Tuesday as they prepare for a Jan. 20 public hearing on the spending plan. Residents on that day will be asked to weigh in on the budget priorities before the selectboard finalizes a number to present to the voters at town meeting.
An earlier draft of the budget called for $10,031,448 in spending, which would have required a 5.6-cent boost on the current municipal tax rate of 94 cents per $100 in property value. Each penny on the municipal rate raises roughly $72,000.
Selectboard members agreed that a 5.6-cent increase was too much to ask of taxpayers who are already helping to pay down debt associated with a new municipal building, recreation facility and substantial upgrades to the community’s two firehouses. Debt service for those and other capital projects, along with contracted salary and benefit increases for municipal workers, is responsible for 3 cents of the tax hike. Considering those fixed costs, town officials decided they should limit the total impact on the municipal rate to 4 cents. That meant only one additional penny to “play with.”
Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay is projecting no growth in the town’s grand list, and noted Middlebury next year will have completely phased out its machinery and equipment tax.
So town staff, led by Ramsay, went about the task of cutting at least 1.5 cents from the original 5.6-cent increase. On Tuesday, Ramsay brought forward a list of $158,742 in changes, including:
•  The application of $75,000 from current surplus money to lower the budget’s impact on property taxes. Ramsay said the allocation of $75,000 would still allow the town to maintain the recommended surplus — or “rainy day fund” — of 5 percent of the total general fund budget.
•  A total of $13,912 in cuts to the proposed capital improvement budget for fiscal year 2016. Among the casualties: Spending $6,000 less on air packs for the fire department, $2,614 less on library ceiling tiles, and $1,298 less on improvements to the municipal tennis courts.
•  A reduction of $33,450 in what officials had proposed for general fund spending next year. Reductions include $6,150 less for heating fuel for the municipal building; a total of $3,600 less in anticipated fuel needs for the police department building and vehicles; $8,000 less for maintenance of unpaved roads; and an $8,000 savings from re-allocating some of a DPW staffer’s time to the municipal water department.
•  Delaying, by six months, the police department’s proposal to replace three part-time officers’ positions with one full-timer, to produce $35,100 in savings. Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said recent changes to state law have made it difficult and impractical for police departments to hire and retain part-time officers, who must receive the same extensive and costly training as full-timers. Hanley noted that part-timers, after having been trained locally and at the Vermont Police Academy, often quickly leave to pursue full-time work elsewhere. Middlebury is carrying three vacant shifts within the department’s weekly schedule that have to be filled on an overtime basis by current officers, Hanley noted.
“Overtime is expensive,” Hanley told the board. He acknowledged that overtime ends up being cheaper than paying the part-time officers’ salaries and benefits, but it “takes a toll on staff” who must work extended hours.
If the board ultimately OKs the proposed $158,742 in budget adjustments, it would yield a revised fiscal year 2016 spending proposal of $9,898,111, of which $6,893,889 would need to be raised through taxes.
Ramsay said she and other town staff will look for an additional $25,000 in savings before the Jan. 20 budget hearing. The board is slated to approve a budget number for the town meeting warning by Jan. 27.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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